On Saturday night at a pink-lit bar in New York's Lower East Side, the musician Aaron David Ross took a moment away from DJing his own party to evangelize a bit.
"Look," he said between vaporous pulls of a dual-coil atomizer, "I'm like the vegetarian that won't leave you alone. Cigarettes are terrible for you."
Ross, who makes records under the name ADR and is one-half of the industrial duo Gatekeeper, held up his personal vaporizer. Cylindrical and silver, it looked much more like an expensive piece of jewelry than a replacement for "analog" cigarettes, a stark contrast to the tobacco-aping NJOYs whose recent advertising campaign has focused on their ability to "look, taste, and feel just like a real cigarette."
Ross and his friends, some wearing chains and black fitted caps, exhaled more odorless smoke than seemed reasonable for a human lung to hold. They looked pretty cool, which is a feat — a friend of Ross', Mat Dryhurst, had earlier relayed that when he started vaping, "My wife said she wouldn't have sex with me if I did this in public."
"Music for vapers, by vapers."
Ross turned back to his laptop, where he was playing an FKA Twigs track to celebrate his new mixtape, Cloud Chasing Vol. 1. It's ostensibly the "first collection of music for vapers, by vapers," and it was compiled by Ross and some of his e-cig enthusiast friends in honor of a symposium held at the art and technology center Rhizome this past weekend. By inviting a group of artists, academics, and enthusiasts to speak on the subject of the e-cigarette, Rhizome hoped to learn "what it means to ‘vape.'"
They couldn't have scheduled the panels for a better time: as recently as a few years ago, e-cigarette smoking was a relatively obscure habit. But with the industry still largely unregulated and projected to rake in a reported $1.5 billion in sales this year, the e-cig market has grown into a multi-tentacled beast. Just as the largely forum-based DIY "modding" scene gains serious traction, legislation is on the horizon for 2014. Meanwhile Big Tobacco, thanks to new lines of electronic products, has the opportunity to hawk its wares on television for the first time in 40 years. This is the Wild West of the Electronic Nicotine Delivery Device (ENDD), and it may not last very much longer in its current form.
And so the panel, on which Ross and Dryhurst both spoke, was cheekily called "This is the ENDD." The event largely cast the e-cig debate's usual suspects — economic, health, and legislative issues — as the background to a number of cultural shifts. Which, because of the world we live in, largely came down to the way e-cigarettes have been marketed.
Vaping parties in glass jacuzzis and at the jane hotel
The e-cigarette industry has spent vast amounts of money and time making a once-dorky and counterintuitive idea — sucking on a metal device filled with nicotine juice and some of the same chemicals used in smoke machines — look desirable, fun, and edgy. This year at CES, Vapor Corp. hosted a party on the pool deck of the Marquee with plexiglass jacuzzis; as one of Rhizome's panelists pointed out, NJOY invited "influencers" to party with e-cigs in hand at the posh Jane Hotel last year, before New York City's former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, banned public indoor vaping.
Now, Courtney Love stars in an e-cig commercial ("It's a f**cking NJOY") and Stephen Dorff strikes rugged poses as a modern-day Marlboro Man for Blu, a brand that was acquired in 2012 for $135 million by Lorilard, one of the Big Three "analog" tobacco companies.
Stephen Dorff, a sensitive modern Marlboro Man
Health researcher and panelist CAB Fredericks notes Blu has even taken the recent indoor e-cig bans in select states as ammunition for those marketing campaigns, encouraging Blu customers to "fight back" against the man.
If some large e-cig companies like NJOY and Blu have rested their cred largely on the dont-tread-on-me, rebel-without-the-consequences feeling of retro Marlboro and Lucky Strike ads, others like the Reynolds-owned Vuse have churned out marketing materials that make their e-cigs sound less like smokes and more like iPads, with TV spots obliquely announcing "dreams, opportunities, the promise of new things to come.
According to Orit Gat, an art critic and Rhizome contributor, the schism between e-cigs marketed like gadgets and those marketed like cigarettes may be because "we're in a particular moment" in the development of the e-cigarette; "We're still not sure what they are," she said during her presentation, "or what we're supposed to do with them."
Gat, having recently spent time in Provence, France, flipped through slides of two small e-clopinettes, small storefronts in which locals were encouraged to try the latest in e-cig technology. A sign above the display read, in French, "technology meets elegance." White-walled and minimalist, with battery packs and slim e-cigs displayed on a wall behind glass, the shops looked more like Apple Stores than smoke shops.
"Vaporists" in Nolita help you "hack" your e-cigs
Her next set of slides, however, showed The Henley Vaporium in Nolita, where available e-cig flavors were written on a chalkboard pinned to an exposed brick wall. There, "vaporists" help you "hack" your e-cigs — "Whatever that means," Gat quipped — in a shop that shares more DNA with an artisinal coffee house than a hyper-clean technology store. "The closer we get to e-cigs," she said, "the closer it is to a Whole Foods than an Apple Store."
For Dryhurst, the idea of the e-cig as a lifestyle brand originates a bit closer to home. When he switched from regular cigarettes to e-cigs, he says he realized he'd have to go all the way to fully commit — he had to make his new device part of his "look." Dryhurst, a San Francisco-based artist, says something like the corporate Blu just wouldn't cut it — "Blu cigarettes are the Coca-Cola of this culture," he says. "They went out of fashion."
He, like Ross, is embedded in a rapidly expanding community of "modders"; e-cigarette users who buy parts online and assemble their own vaping devices, spending hours on forums, endlessly tweaking their constructions to get the perfect vapor density or amount of nicotine per hit. In this corner of the e-cigarette market, makers craft hours of YouTube reviews detailing the technical specs of their devices, which tend to be seen as tinkerers' toys: "It speaks to the same compulsion as synthsizer builders," Dryhurst said.
"Blu e-cigarettes are the coca-cola of this culture. They went out of fashion."
In the final section of the panel, during a question-and-answer period, Ross and Alex Gvojict, the artist responsible for Cloud Chasing Vol. 1's cover art joined a handful of the other speakers onstage. In order to make the cover, Gvojict photoshopped a stock photo image of young professionals out at a purple club, vaping happily away over neon-colored drinks.
Gvojict expressed to the audience a desire to remove what e-cigarette stigma remained: "It's just about normalization," he said. Ross vaped enthusiastically alongside him at the presentation table, only to be chided softly by the event's organizers — even at an e-cig conference you can't vape indoors in New York.
Even the most theoretical of conversations about vaping culture eventually come back down to the ground — as was reported widely just days before This is the ENDD, lobbyists are storming Washington as the Office of Management and Budget reviews a proposal to bring e-cigarette rule-making under the wing of the FDA, which would likely regulate ENDDs much the way they do analog tobacco products.
"It's an extension of who you are."
In the final question-and-answer period of Rhizome's talk, Phil Daman, the president of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, raised his hand and unceremoniously addressed both the panelists and the crowd.
"Vaping culture is absolutely fascinating," said Daman. "And the script is very much unwritten. So I'm here to ask you ... Do you know how much influence you have?"
"I personally do think I have a lot of influence," answered Gvojict, "being someone who is about this culture .. and the actual building and customizing, bringing it to this avatar level. It's an extension of who you are."